After nearly five years as the chief librarian of the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Richard Reyes-Gavilan is heading south to head another of the nation’s most notable urban library systems as head of the District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL). In doing so, he’ll follow the career track of retiring DCPL chief librarian Ginnie Cooper, who headed BPL for seven years before moving to DCPL in 2006. Library Journal spoke to Reyes-Gavilan about his decision to move to the nation’s capital, the challenges waiting for him there, and the advice he’d give to his successor in Brooklyn
LJ: What made this the right time to leave Brooklyn for DC?
Richard Reyes-Gavilan: It’s a complicated combination of professional and very personal, kind of mundane, reasons that suggested the timing for a move was good. My wife and I have a new baby, and the chance came at a time when we have outgrown our home as a family. We’ve always liked DC and my wife grew up just outside the city, so this won’t be a socially difficult transition. Professionally, the DC libraries have been making tremendous strides in the last few years in terms of facilities and hours, making it a really great opportunity.
What made the position at DCPL attractive to you?
It started with informal conversations with board members last summer, when they were just looking to talk to people around the country about what they should be looking for in a new director. I got a very strong sense that this was a positive, dedicated group. That’s key to my decision to go there, knowing I’ll be supported and have folks at my side who are devoted to a vision of public service. The administration has also been exceptionally supportive of library services, and that is gold. So few cities have that kind of electoral official support—it’s really great to feel I’ll be able to focus on doing things rather than on getting support to do things.
What in particular impressed you about the support that system has had in recent years?
There has been a tremendous amount of energy into new and renovated branches, resulting in terrific physical infrastructure. The opportunity to work on the coming renovations to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library [DC’s central library] is fascinating, both architecturally and from a service perspective. It’s going to be a real challenge, as well as a chance to create a destination in DC while respecting that building and its history. From a staff perspective, the system has done a huge amount of hiring in recent months. There’s a lot of new energy in the system, and it’s going to be a thrill, a joy, and a challenge to harness that new energy.
What are the things you’ve accomplished in Brooklyn that you’re most proud of?
Doing anything in a climate of continual budget cuts sets a lot of what we did in context and makes me more proud of what we did. In particular, we worked for months on an organizational analysis that allowed us to increase open hours by 400 hours a week across the system with a reduced staff.
The new Information Commons at Brooklyn’s Central Branch also stands out. I had a vision for a new space in that building months after I got here in 2008, and to work on that space from the planning to the fundraising to overseeing the construction of the space…. That will probably be the thing I’m most proud of, having a connection to that phenomenal space in the Central Library.
Are there any projects at BPL you wish you could see through?
Pick a page from our latest Strategic Plan, and there’s something I’d like to be involved in there. We’ve been working for the better part of the last year to redevelop a branch in Brooklyn Heights, and it would have been great to be part of a deep community design process around that branch. I’ll miss that and will follow it from afar; it’s a great project for the system as a whole. And our Central Library is undergoing constant renovation, with plans for a new teen space and centralizing our business and career services there in the coming years. Those are going to be phenomenal resources, and they’ll be someone else’s projects now.
The political climate could also be very different from the one I’m familiar with. It will be neat to see where [incoming New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio’s priorities end up. There are also a number of new council members who it would be nice to work with when they’re brand new to the council, when you can introduce them to libraries and cultivate them as advocates.
What advice would you give the person who steps into your shoes at BPL?
The advice I would give, which was hard for me to heed, is to spend as much time away from your desk as humanly possible. This is a position that is responsible for leading thousands of staff across the borough, so there’s obviously a lot of administrative work. But it’s also a job where you’re singularly positioned to get stakeholders to start thinking about libraries in new ways. And the best way to do that is by getting out and speaking to people, whether that’s by sitting in a break room in a library branch in Canarsie or going to a community board meeting in Sunset Park.